The New York Times has a good piece explaining the principled attacks on Obama from some of his usual allies over his decidedly cautious steps to trim the deficit and tackle entitlement reform. But the article also explains some of the factors behind the decision. In my opinion, the president is wise to ignore those who want a “profile in courage” moment. These are issues that Republicans have claimed the high ground on, so let them take the lead.
The president showed extraordinary leadership in his first two years. In the face of a the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression the president had to go against the grain of 30 years of political indoctrination to get even the minimal amount of financial regulatory reform that was passed. He had to try and stimulate the economy with a massive Keynesian burst of government spending that has proved helpful, but insufficient to lower unemployment rates significantly. And in the midst of it all, he would not abandon the reform that had bedeviled Democrats since Harry Truman—health care reform.
In appreciation for his attempts to save capitalism from its worst crisis in 80 years, he has been decried as a socialist from a conservative media with a louder megaphone than at any time in our history. His Keynesian stimulus plan has been pilloried by leading economists on the left. And his signature health care bill is only now, after the midterm elections, getting the kind of robust support and defense from his core Democratic base that it should have received at the beginning. All of this left him defeated in the congressional elections and forced to make a compromise on taxes that caused a mini-revolt among his democratic congressional leaders.
In other words, he has shown political courage that has our economy back on its feet and poised for growth, our financial institutions more sufficiently regulated and health care on a path to sustainability. He needs now a heavy dose of political prudence. He must get long-term deficits under control and that will require higher taxes, lower discretionary spending, tax reform and entitlement reforms. The only way those have any chance of happening is through bipartisan work, and the only way Republicans will see it in their interest to negotiate with him is if he is politically strong and respected. His outstanding leadership during the Arizona tragedy, combined with the natural support Americans give their president during international crises like that in Egypt and improving economic reports, have him politically strong again. Respect from Republicans will come not by him stepping out in front of them and asking them to follow, but him essentially calling Republicans out to put a plan together that matches their heated rhetoric. Some are calling this “setting a trap” for Republicans, but I call it prudential governing and I support it.